Isolated Afghanistan may face struggle for aid after earthquake

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As Afghanistan reels from a powerful earthquake and starts to bury its more than 1,000 dead, the Taliban leadership in Kabul have appealed to the international community to clear any barriers created by sanctions and come to their aid.

“The government is working within its capabilities,” tweeted Anas Haqqani, a senior Taliban official. “We hope that the International Community & aid agencies will also help our people in this dire situation.”

On the basis that most of the urgent relief work can be classified as humanitarian as opposed to development aid, countries should be able to argue the assistance is permitted under US treasury sanctions waivers. Although there are grey lines between the two forms of aid, money to respond to an earthquake falls clearly under humanitarian work, and the UN relief agency OCHA was immediately coordinating a response in liaison with aid agencies.

But humanitarian aid appeals for Afghanistan have had poor responses this year despite drought and a collapse of the economy, and without replenishment the crisis will put further strains on funds. The number of aid agencies operating in the country has fallen, as has access through the international airport.

The International Rescue Committee – probably the largest remaining agency, with as many staff as the UN or even more – said it was deploying mobile health teams and working with authorities to provide support and cash assistance. The Italian medical aid group Emergency said it had sent seven ambulances and staff to the areas closest to the quake zone.

The Geneva-based International Federation of Red Cross said its disaster teams were on the way to Afghanistan and money would be released from its disaster relief emergency funds. In addition to the cash assistance, the Afghan Red Cross said it was sending 4,000 blankets, 800 tents and tarpaulins, 1,500 washing containers and hundreds of mattresses, pillows, blankets and cooking utensils.

Ambulances were heading to Logar, Khost, Paktika and Paktia provinces, but in the short term the issue is access to the earthquake-devastated areas, which are in one of the country’s most inaccessible regions. The rudimentary Kabul international airport will be put to the test. Flights operate regularly in and out of the airport but security has proved a problem.

Iran, Germany and the EU were among the countries and institutions coming forward with offers of help. But that does not mean there will not be complications under sanctions law, since aid agencies have been excessively risk-averse in sending cash to Afghanistan if it could be deemed likely to touch Taliban-linked accounts.

Related: Hundreds killed after powerful earthquake hits Afghanistan

The episode may serve to remind the international community how badly underfunded the general aid effort is in Afghanistan. Overall, the diplomatic trajectory remains not to recognise the Taliban, largely owing to their discrimination against women.

This week the UN banned two Afghan education ministers from travelling abroad for any peace and stability talks, after its security council removed them from a sanctions exemption list. The UN agreed that 13 officials could remain on the exemptions list for another three months, unless after two months a UN member objects to the extension.

The Taliban backtracked in March on their pledge to lift a ban on girls attending high school, saying they would remain closed until a plan was drawn up in accordance with Islamic law for them to reopen. The decision has left the Taliban deprived of access to its overseas assets and to much World Bank funding. The previous regime was dependent on overseas aid.

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